Sydney Anglicans IV: The Primacy of the Word

Posted on July 11, 2012 
Filed under Sydney Diocese

Mark Thompson writes about the primacy of the word in part four of his series on Sydney Anglicans –

“Unsurprisingly, confidence in the Bible as the written word of God, the supreme authority in all matters of faith and life, would soon become an enduring characteristic of the church in Sydney.”

Read it all here –

“The churches of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney are sometimes caricatured as Bible-centred rather than Christ-centred or God-centred. The truth behind the caricature is the attention we give to the proclamation of the word in public and private gatherings. While elsewhere Anglican churches might give more prominence to the sacraments or to an experience of the Spirit, Sydney Anglican churches typically place great store on the reading and exposition of Scripture. Expository preaching is the staple diet of most congregations. Fellowship groups routinely involve Bible study.

This central place given to reading, hearing and teaching the Bible goes back to the very beginnings of the colony. The first Christian sermon preached on Australian soil was Richard Johnson’s exposition of Psalm 116:12 — ‘What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward me’. The influence of Charles Simeon on many of the evangelical clergy who travelled to the young colony could be seen in their biblical preaching. Some of the early settlers (e.g. Thomas Moore) became patrons of the Bible Society and helped to distribute Bibles in the colony. Unsurprisingly, confidence in the Bible as the written word of God, the supreme authority in all matters of faith and life, would soon become an enduring characteristic of the church in Sydney. But, of course, this has never been unique to Sydney. The primacy of the word of God is a defining element of evangelical Anglicanism the world over. It is part of our Reformation heritage.

Such an emphasis should not be taken to mean that there is no place at all for the sacraments or  ‘experience’ or the Spirit in Sydney Anglicanism. In keeping with the emphasis of the great Reformers, the sacraments have often been described as tangible words, signs which are joined to the proclamation of the gospel and which point to its central realities — inclusion or immersion in Christ (baptism) and the forgiveness of sins through the broken body and shed blood of the Saviour (the Lord’s Supper). They do not convey salvation but attest to it and to its source in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Overemphasis upon the sacraments has carried with it a host of dangers, including a sacerdotal understanding of Christian ministry, a devaluing of the word and its place in ordering the personal and corporate lives of Christians, and an obscuring of the finished work of Christ which anchors Christian confidence and energises Christian mission. But in reaction some have gone too far in the other direction and dismissed the sacraments as entirely unnecessary and irrelevant. Such an extreme is not something most Sydney churches are willing to embrace.

The caricature once more misses the mark when it suggests this emphasis on the word is at the expense of experience. Evangelical engagement with the word of God is deeply experiential. How could being addressed by the living God be anything but profoundly experiential? We meet God as we hear his words. Encountering God’s word should never be set over against encountering the God whose word it is. Evangelical Christianity ought not to be confused with ancient Gnosticism, which isolated ‘knowledge’ from life and confined it to the mind. Evangelicals readily affirm that the whole person is redeemed by Christ, not just our mental processes. Responding to the word of God certainly involves the mind, but also the will and the emotions and finds expression in our words and actions. What is more, it is the word of God which enables us to test our experiences rather than prematurely investing them with spiritual significance.

Attention to Scripture does not usurp the place of the Spirit either. How could it, since the Spirit is vitally involved in both the production of Scripture and its reception? Men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21). The mystery of Christ was revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit (Eph. 3:5). The sword of the Spirit is the word of God (Eph. 6:17).  But when the word is received with full conviction, that too is the work of the Spirit (1 Thess. 1:5). It is no honour to the Spirit to seek to relate to him apart from the word which he caused to be written and which he enables us to understand and believe. Instead, our dependence upon the Spirit who is so intimately involved at every point of the word coming to us is demonstrated by careful attention to that word.

Sydney Anglicans take the Bible seriously precisely because it is the word of God. We want to hear what our heavenly Father has to say and to let that shape our response to him and what he has done for us in his Son and by his Spirit. Our interest is never exhausted by the text itself. But by means of the text we are brought to hear its author — to trust his promise, rejoice in his explanation of what he has done, and follow his instruction. As the apostle Paul put it,

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16–17).”

– First published at Theological Theology, 10 July 2012.
Dr Mark Thompson is the President of the Anglican Church League.